Two years ago, Cynthia Nixon played Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a quiet, respectful, period-perfect biopic of the 19th century poet that carried on the notion that she was a recluse with a rebellious streak, writing hundreds of poems confining herself to a room.
“Wild Nights with Emily” is close to that picture’s polar opposite, with Molly Shannon playing Dickinson not as quiet and shut away, but as a woman carrying on a lifelong love affair with Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), who eventually became her sister-in-law, staying “shut in” to continue the affair and working, without success to get her poetry published in her lifetime.
And writer/director Madeleine Olnek’s picture -- based on the most recent research about Dickinson and her life -- provides the explanation for the myth of Emily as in the film’s words: “a half-cracked, unloved recluse who was afraid to publish her work.”
That was the tool wielded by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), an ambitious wannabe writer, who scoops up Emily’s poems after her death and publishes them, after carefully editing out references to Sue and Susan, altering for decades the perception of Dickinson and her work.
So how did Todd get her hands on Emily’s poems? Revealing that would be an unnecessary spoiler for the surprising film that’s played as much for comedy as serious drama.
The comedy isn’t of the punchline variety. Rather, it’s situational and is made more funny by the different personalities in here life.
Emily and Susan’s passionate falling-to-the-floor kiss that opens the picture will make you chuckle, as will the film's portrayal of Emily’s sister Lavinia (Jackie Monahan) as a crazy cat lady, Ralph Waldo Emerson as an unintelligible mumbler and Atlantic Monthly poetry editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), as a pompous ass to whom Emily nervously pitches her poems and is rejected.
Shannon and Zeiger play Emily and Susan in the last couple decades of Dickinson’s life, displaying plenty of chemistry and generating some serious sparks -- when Emily cheats (another spoiler I’m not going to detail).
But the film works because it flashes back to the teenage Emily (Dana Melanie) and Susan (Sasha Forlova) beginning their affair with a dramatic Shakespeare reading and a kiss in a forest and continuing to tell the backstory of Susan’s departure to teach school before ultimately returning.
That’s when she became involved with Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who, it turns out, in a sin of omission and perhaps commission, was a key contributor to the development of Emily's reclusive myth.
“Wild Nights with Emily” doesn’t have the exquisite period detail and feel of “A Quiet Passion” or “Masterpiece Theater,” in large part, because of Olnek’s attempt to play Emily’s story as comedy-drama and getting something of an awkward balance between the two, sometimes yanking the viewer out of the 1800s.
But those wobbles don’t derail the picture or undermine it’s illuminating, corrective take on Dickinson and her poetry, which can’t help but be seen in a different light after viewing the movie.